Sporting Spotlight

Politics and the Olympic Games

Sharing a recent essay I submitted for my sport governance module at university !

‘Few enthusiasts of elite sport nowadays believe that it can be separated from politics,though there must be many that wish that it could’ (Hill, 1996). At this current time, there have been 29 instalments of the modern Summer Olympic Games, and 23 Winter Games respectively; with few, if any, free from political undertones relating to nationalistic gain. Whether it is the host nation looking to showcase national superiority, foreign government implementing boycotts, or simply seeking sporting victory with the hope of bolstering image and global standing, politics lie at the centre of the Games. This political landscape is further broadened by the impact of the IOC, or thereof lack of impact, when international politics threaten to become embroidered within the Olympic sphere.

This essay aims to document and analyse the role of the International Olympic Committee with regards to their ‘apolitical’ agenda. Examples of both the Games of Berlin 1936 and Sochi 2014 will be presented as means to document government interference whilst hosting, in the search for nationalistic gain.

The IOC (2015) affirm, ‘The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity’.  Similar rhetoric engrained within the Olympic Charter from its inception, has consistently echoed that sport is an instrument for ‘peace, fair play, human dignity’, with the Olympic Games providing the ultimate showcase for this ‘Olympic Spirit’ (IOC, 2015). Moreover, the committee has feverishly documented itself as an apolitical branch, and merely a bystander when it comes to domestic and international affairs; however, evidence throughout history shows consistent meddling in the political domain (Lenskyji, 2014). As Cooper (2013, cited in Lenskyji, 2014:82) documents, ‘The IOC looks like a state, behaves like a state, and functions like a state’. Admittedly, the IOC is the ‘untouchable’ hegemonic power within sport, however, as the organisation has grown, so too has their moral backbone and political standing been challenged by controversy and scandal (Green & Houlihan, 2005).

One could look towards the numerous incidences of boycott surrounding the games, and the subsequent challenge to Olympic hegemony. As Strinati (1995) discusses in relation to the usurping of hegemonic power, revolutionary forces must gain the control of civil society in order to succeed. Instances of Olympic boycott, therefore, have usually been on the back of a rallying cry by a world superpower, the largest of which, in 1980, was spearheaded by the United States (Moretti, 2013).

Moreover, states have continuously used the Olympic stage as a means of generating national identity by displaying power and resources (International Journal of the History of Sport, 2008); subsequently each new addition of the Olympiad sees the host attempting to better those of predecessors, whether that is through spectacular events or more grandiose facilities (Green & Houlihan, 2005). Thus, the Olympics, due to their widespread publicity, have provided political regimes throughout history, a platform unlike any other in which to engineer their political ideology to the watching world (Toohey & Veal, 2007). However, Grix (2013) states that little research has been carried out in terms of studying ‘leveraging’ strategies employed by host nations.

Moving on, much is documented regarding the hypocrisy and corruption of the IOC in recent times, in relation to the awarding of the Games to both Beijing and Sochi, cities within nation’s rife with human rights issues (Lenskyji, 2014). Furthermore, is the discussion that the IOC shows no concern for social justice when the discharge of the culpable nation would result in the loss of profitability and popularity (Lenskyji, 2014).  Subsequently, numerous incidences throughout history show the IOC making decisions which benefit themselves, whilst ignoring the political turmoil engulfing host nations (Grix, 2013).

Toohey & Veal (2007) explore the dynamics of sport and politics, expressing, ‘the nexus between government and sport exists on many levels and this makes it possible for governments to use the Olympic Games as a tool to punish other governments for their politics and ideologies’. Subsequently, under this rhetoric, the prestige of hosting, and conversely, the loss of prestige associated with the boycott of a Games are political weapons implemented by governments for nationalistic gain (Toohey & Veal, 2007). However, even at an athletic level, government see victory as a tool in the reinforcement of national image, and the superiority of the political regime in comparison to other competing nations (International Journal of the History of Sport, 2008).

The impact of Germany on the sports politics paradigm is one of major significance (International Journal of the History of Sport, 2008). As, Grix (2013) states, the Nazi regime hosted the world’s first mega sports event; an event which involved major governmental manipulation, and numerous accounts of controversy (Kessler, 2011). Moreover, on a large-scale, the impact domestic and international government powers could have in pursuing idealised ideologies through sport was brought to the forefront for the first time (Kessler, 2011). Hitler saw the upcoming Games as a means to divert attention from the political situation transpiring in Germany, whilst glorifying the Nazi regime, and their perceived idea of Aryan supremacy (International Journal of the History of Sport, 2008). Strenk (1970, cited in Toohey & Veal, 2007:4) noted, ‘here was a chance to show the world how modern and progressive Germany was…to demonstrate that Germans were happy and prosperous under the Nazi system’. Subsequently the Nazi’s capitalised on the prestige and glamour associated with hosting the games; using it as a propaganda machine, a façade was adorned by the city of Berlin in the form of modern technology and state of the art facilities, the removal of anti-Semitic publications, and the temporary curtailing of violence towards the Jewish population (Toohey & Veal, 2007).

However, the international community in the years leading to the event threatened a boycott on numerous occasions, led by the US in particular, over the human rights violations within Germany (Kessler, 2011). Discriminatory polices initiated by the Nazi party disallowed Jewish athletes from competing on the German Olympic team, and whilst against the underpinning virtues of the Olympic charter regarding ‘the right of every individual to practice sport’, the IOC remained unmoved, again exclaiming the notion of not interfering in domestic political issues (Kessler, 2011). Consequently, Lenskyji (2014:) writes, ‘The IOC self-identifies as a source for world peace and egalitarianism when it suits Olympic industry purposes, while presenting itself as a mere bystander at other times’. Additionally, Teichler (1983) discusses the fact that although the Nazi’s abused the Games’ purpose, major international leaders were willing to tolerate and even praise the regime. Furthermore, Avery Brundage, head of the USOC at the time, and future IOC president, headed the anti-boycott movement in the US, stating, ‘the unhindered continuance of the Olympic movement was more important than the German-Jewish situation’ (Kessler, 2011). Therefore, as Strinati (2005) examines, dominant societal bodies maintain power by securing ‘spontaneous consent’ of subordinate groups; in the case of the Nazi’s in the avoidance of international boycott, particularly with regards to the US, they saw this as a success for National Socialist leadership (Kessler, 2011). However, an alternative ‘Workers’ Olympics ‘was arranged in Barcelona in what would have proven to be a challenge to the Olympic sporting hegemony, if not for the breakout of the Spanish Civil War (Lenskyji, 2014).

Nonetheless, the overriding legacy stemming from the ‘Nazi Games’ was that of the stunning achievements of Jesse Owens, a black African-American athlete, who singlehandedly dismissed the claims of Nordic supremacy by the Hitler regime (Kessler, 2011). Consequently the Washington Post (1936, cited in Kessler, 2011:19) published a headline reading, ‘Hitler declared Aryan supremacy by decree…but Jesse Owens is proving him a liar by degrees’. Historians have argued as to the impact Owens’ performances, and friendship with German athlete Lutz Long, clearly a violation of National Socialism ideology, in challenging Nazi apartheid (International Journal of the History of Sport, 2008).

The 23rd Winter Olympics held in Sochi, Russia, have drawn comparisons to the Games of Berlin 1936 (Lenskyji, 2014; Gronskaya & Makarychev, 2014; Arab News, 2014). Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov exclaimed, ‘these are games which revolve around a single man’, in relation to Russian President Vladimir Putin (Arab News, 2014). Likewise, the Russian anti-gay agenda, spearheaded by Putin, drew comparisons to the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews at the time of the Berlin Games (Lenskyji, 2014).  Furthermore, the host city itself was questioned, seeing as it seen as a subtropical resort; however, suggestions are that it was selected it due to its geography within the troubled Caucasus region (Arab News, 2014).

However, Putin invested heavily in these games, seeing them as symbolising Russia’s identity under his leadership (Lenskyji, 2014). Subsequently, Gronskaya & Makarychev (2014) state the Russian ideology with regards to hosting the games was projecting that of a powerful nation, and one which was seen as an equal amongst the global community; ultimately displaying a ‘new’ Russia, similar to the ideals held by the Nazi regime.  Additionally, the safe and trouble free games would show the world Russia’s competence in hosting mega-events, with the FIFA World Cup arriving in 2018 (Gronskaya & Makarychev, 2014). Yet, similar to the Games of 1936 were the calls for international boycott upon the grounds of discrimination against the LGBT community; Lenskyji (2014) states that a major component of the IOC charter highlights ‘action against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement’.  However, similar to Brundage’s actions regarding the Nazi games, Olympic officials were reportedly ‘satisfied’ that no discrimination would take place at the games, despite evidence pertaining to vigilante violence against sexual minorities (Lenskyji, 2014). Even greater the scandal was the Russian government’s attempts to use the Olympic charter to prevent peaceful demonstrations during the games; Amnesty International (2014, cited in Lenskyji, 2014:79) state that this use, ‘would not only fall outside the prohibition envisaged in the charter, but also violate standards of freedom of expression, association and assembly’.

Moreover, Putin’s demonization of a minority group whilst seeking political gain is as, Fierstein (2013) states, ‘straight out of the Nazi playbook’. The hegemonic state, headed by the Putin regime in Russia, is again similar to that of Nazi Germany, in the sense that many have consented to the stated direction of his leadership; however, this consent has not always been peaceful, with the implementation of physical force and coercion across bodies of the nation (Lenskyji, 2014). Nevertheless, for Putin, the Sochi games acted as a means of returning Russia to previous glorious, a means of reclaiming its place as the global power which it had been during the Soviet-era; internally, the message was that the regime had succeeded in producing a propaganda fuelled sporting spectacle which attracted the world’s attention (Gronskaya & Makarychev, 2014).

In conclusion, this essay has questioned the integrity of the IOC as an organisation which seeks to promote ‘peace and harmonious development’ through sporting excellence (IOC, 2015). On the contrary, whilst not directly contributing to government manipulation of their showpiece event, the IOC provide the resources, and choose to tolerate indiscretions by international regimes, so long as it isn’t affecting their profitability (Moretti, 2013). As Toohey & Veal (2007) state, ‘When Olympic medal ceremonies play the national anthem and raise the flag of the victor’s country…at the opening ceremony, athletes march into the stadium nation by nation, these practices are overly creating nationalistic tensions, rivalries and pride’. Moreover, the examples of both Nazi Germany and Putin’s Russia exemplify the use of the games for political gain with regards to nationalism; amidst domestic apartheid, which on both occasions the IOC have tolerated, even though it demerits everything their organisation stands for. To summarise, the Olympic Games, whilst claiming to be apolitical, are arguably the greatest world stage for nations to demonstrate nationalism both at government level, and through sporting activity.

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